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and Jacques Martineau

Writer-director Richard Linklater defies the filmmaking dictum of “show, don’t tell” by stuffing his movies with characters who never stop babbling. In Slacker, his free-form, breakthrough 1991 feature, he presented a parade of loquacious dropouts, all bent on articulating their peculiar obsessions. Four years later, in Before Sunrise, he narrowed his focus to two attractive young people, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who meet on a train and spend a night in Vienna talking until dawn and, in the process, falling in love. In his new film, Waking Life, Linklater unwisely ups the ante from weirdo prattle and courtship conversation to Big Ideas. His decision to employ innovative animation techniques makes the movie interesting to look at, but the flood of leaden, half-baked verbiage undermines the often arresting imagery.

Unlike Slacker, which arbitrarily moves from one soliloquizer to the next, Waking Life is structured around an unnamed central character, played by Wiley Wiggins. In 37 vignettes, he encounters 55 monologist/gurus (among them, Hawke and Delpy reprising their Before Sunrise roles and Linklater himself) who spout borrowed and self-evolved philosophical theories about the nature of being. (Their sources include Kierkegaard, Sartre, García Lorca, D.H. Lawrence, Lewis Carroll, Lady Gregory, Philip K. Dick, and film theorist André Bazin.) The anonymous, largely mute protagonist intermittently awakens from what appears to be a dreamlike state to find himself inhabiting yet another dream, provoking the question of whether life itself is an illusion. If so, whose illusion, and how does this relate to such additional conundrums as the existence of a higher power and the relationship between predestination and free will?

Linklater shot Waking Life with digital cameras, then used computers to color, stylize, and abstract the resulting images. Each sequence employs a distinctive palette and graphic style chosen to enhance the ideas and emotions of the speaker. Some of the designs are stunning, but a recurrent device of isolating certain compositional elements and granting them spasmodic independent motion becomes headache-inducing.

Waking Life is an impressive advance for a filmmaker hitherto more concerned with dialogue than visuals. But its content is a disappointing step backward. Ninety-seven minutes of animated talking heads pontificating about ontological concerns brings to mind late-night dorm bull sessions and barroom colloquies in which half-formed, half-drunk minds toy with ideas well beyond their grasps. No doubt the participants find these encounters profound—but rested, sober observers are likely to flee to the nearest exit.

These days, American movies are so terrified of originality that one feels cranky criticizing a production that dares to be different. Unquestionably, Waking Life is a singular effort and merits applause for going up against the commercial mainstream of infantile action pictures and no-brainer adaptations of vintage television shows, comic books, and video games. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to warm to a movie that transcends childishness only to settle for sophomoric pretentiousness.

The Adventures of Félix, a comedy written and directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, opens with an extended tracking shot of the title character, played by trim, nimble Sami Bouajila, cycling along the Normandy coast while singer-pianist Blossom Dearie’s breezy 1956 recording “Tout Doucement” plays on the soundtrack. This sequence sums up both the movie’s strengths and its liabilities. Softly and sweetly, Ducastel and Martineau set out to charm the pants off the audience, and, to a considerable extent, they succeed. But their refusal to engage the darker aspects of some of the themes that they raise results in a cloying, unpersuasively upbeat experience.

Having lost his job as a bartender on a ferry, Félix, a young half-French, half-Arab HIV-positive gay man, decides to hitchhike from Dieppe to Marseilles to confront the father whom he has never met. After visiting an AIDS clinic to obtain his medication and making plans for Daniel (Pierre-Loup Rajot), his schoolteacher lover, to join him at the end of his five-day journey, Félix hits the road. Along the way, he manages to collect a new family—a point the filmmakers heavy-handedly underline with printed titles such as “My Little Brother” and “My Grandmother.”

The brother is horny 17-year-old Jules (Charly Sergue), with whom Félix shares a joy ride in a stolen car and an evening at a gay disco. Félix tenderly rebuffs Jules’ sexual advances but is less standoffish with his “cousin” (Philippe Garziano), a muscular railroad worker who offers him a ride and, after the pair fly kites together, joins him for a hot romp in the bushes (poison ivy bushes, unfortunately, but at least they are cautious enough to use condoms). Félix’s “grandmother,” Mathilde (played by Patachou, the erstwhile French cabaret singer), finds him sleeping on a park bench and invites him to her home, where he helps her rearrange furniture and trades confidences. He encounters his “sister” Isabelle (Ariane Ascaride) when her van, filled with three children sired by different fathers, breaks down. He briefly becomes part of her nonconformist brood, then moves on to meet his faux father (Maurice Bénichou), a stoical fisherman. By the time Félix reaches his destination, he realizes that the family he has assembled along the road is more important to him than the biological father who abandoned him before he was born. Relinquishing the purpose of his quest, Félix sets off on a new series of adventures with Daniel.

Bouajila, who appears in every scene, is an appealing performer, but the filmmakers labor so hard to make him endearing—smiling benevolently at a child with an ice cream cone, dancing down country lanes, relishing television soaps that others consider inane—that, by the end of the movie, he’s worn out his welcome. The supporting cast fares better, especially Patachou, in a no-nonsense turn as a sharp-witted, unsentimental geriatric, and Ascaride, as a free spirit who thrives on chaos.

Matthieu Poirot-Delpech’s sunny photography of the French countryside augments the film’s optimistic tone. But Ducastel and Martineau steer into treacherous waters when they attempt to transform an AIDS-clinic scene into a comic routine about rival drug protocols, stage a sequence in which Félix witnesses the aftermath of a murder and is beaten by one of the culprits, and depict Félix’s roadside encounter with a pugnacious xenophobe. These episodes fail to dovetail with the film’s overall sweetness and light, typified by the surprising absence of homophobia throughout Félix’s travels. The filmmakers’ determination to gloss over the unsettling themes they raise seems excessively craven. Had they dared to doff their rose-colored blinkers, The Adventures of Félix would have amounted to something more substantial and more memorable than an excessively winsome divertissement. CP